“I hear,” Yechiel said. But he couldn’t hear all the things she wouldn’t say, about Yitzchok’s temper, Yitzchok’s snide comments, Yitzchok’s withering looks that made her feel like a cockroach in her own home.
enny was on her third round of dishes when realization hit her.
I have no one.
Yehuda and Rochel Leah were on their way back to Lakewood, probably on the Verrazano by now. But she’d never really had Yehuda anyway. The only boy, he had been Yitzchok’s from the moment he was born. Baruch Hashem, he had the brains to make Yitzchok proud. And the sense of duty to be a good son, to come for Pesach this first fraught Yom Tov without Yitzchok there. Rochel Leah was a good girl too, stopping in at her parents for a meal here and there but spending most of Yom Tov in Flatbush so the fresh almanah would have a house filled with happy sounds and Yom Tov spirit.
Though in all honesty, the table wouldn’t have been empty. She could always count on Judy to show up. Poor Judy; no family, no friends, no one to remind her to check her blood sugar and to cook her special diabetic foods. And Mr. Spielsinger, who surely relived his own Mitzrayim every Pesach. Not that his kids in Tel Aviv cared what kind of trauma their father had gone through in Siberia. They were busy making big money. Such a rachmanus he was, living all alone. At least Hashem had placed him two doors away from her, so Yehuda could pick him up on the way home from shul and Henny could make sure he had a hot meal.
So the table wouldn’t have been empty, but still. Yom Tov is for family. Good thing Yehuda came.
Now it was over, and as usual, Henny’s body pulsed with tension. Scour the huge soup pot, dry the china, start a new load of dish towels. Quickly, quickly, get it all packed away. As quickly as she can, so that tomorrow morning Yitzchok wouldn’t be angry at her.
Angry like he was that first year they made Pesach, three months after her parents’ car accident, when there was no one to go to anymore. She’d come into Yom Tov burdened by pain and loss; he’d entered with a swagger. It was obvious that he relished his chance to finally be boss.
After eight days spent in the grip of an invisible fist, she’d taken a tenuous breath. She’d pulled it off okay, kept all his chumras and made sure not to ruin his divrei Torah with her silly feminine prattle. But then, that first morning after Yom Tov was over, he’d ambled into the kitchen after Shacharis with a bag of fresh Kaiser rolls — and exploded when he saw the Pesach stemware still drying upside-down on a plaid pink dishtowel.
“Henny! What is this?”
She shrank into her robe.
“You realize that you almost treifed up our Pesachdig keilim?” He waved the brown paper bag at her. “Havdalah was how many hours ago, and you’re still putting things away?”
Henny hadn’t bothered answering. Long ago she’d learned that there was never an answer good enough, smart enough, sharp enough for this man with the keen hazel eyes and always-ticking brain. She just headed toward the counter and felt the unseen fist squeeze a bit tighter.
The next year, a frantic tempo hammered through her body on Motzaei Pesach, until every last item was packed away. It wasn’t worth risking Yitzchok’s ire again. Brains she might not have, but she had gotten good at learning from her mistakes.
Maybe too good? Henny suddenly realized that the water was still running, though the sink was empty. This year was different. This year, there was no danger of Yitzchok storming into her kitchen, not from his present location on Har Hamenuchos. She could wait as long as she wanted to dry the dishes. Because there was no one to dry them for, no one waiting for French toast or macaroni tomorrow.
Already on Motzaei Purim, Faigy had coolly informed her that she and Yossi had decided to stay home for all the Pesach meals this year. A day later, when she’d told Rochie that Judy would be joining them, Rochie had suddenly decided that she and Dovi were ready to make Pesach themselves. Mindy had turned down her invitation with the excuse that it was terrible for her kids to be off schedule and out of their own beds. Yes, Yehuda and Rochel Leah had come, but there were none of those late-night conversations she read about in the books, no knowing looks of shared jokes or understanding.
Henny wrapped the ke’arah and decanters in their tissue paper. She pulled the dish towels out of the dryer, folded them, stowed them in an open box. Tomorrow Christina would help tape up the boxes and put them away.
“You have Judy. Judy needs you,” she told herself. “Who else makes sure she takes her insulin? Who takes her to her appointments?”
I’m alone. My kids don’t need me, they don’t want to be here with me.
“You have Mr. Spielsinger,” her inner voice insisted. “He’s always telling you that your chicken soup is mechayeh meisim.”
“The only thing you have in this world is your family,” the voice finally admitted. “And you don’t even have that.”
as it nine o’clock already? Henny quickly washed up and dressed. Just in time — Christina was ringing the bell, ready to put the house in order. Over coffee, she decided to check on Judy. It was so hard for these diabetics on the first day after Pesach, when everyone was feasting on pizza. Judy would need some chizzuk.
“Judy, how’s everything? How was your night?”
“Henny, you should just feel grateful that you’re able to sleep at night. You can’t imagine.”
“Terrible, I know. Hashem should give you koiach. Judy, did you check your blood sugar today? Everything okay?”
The familiar whine. “Just for once, for one day a year, you’d think I’d be able to go to a pizza store like everyone else. But no, never. No treats for Judy. Always on a diet, always checking my numbers, always living on the edge of the grave.”
“Judy, you need me to come over? Maybe take you out for some fresh air? You sound a little depressed.”
“Depressed? Me? Nah, I’m dancing with joy. The luckiest woman alive. No family, no friends, no money. Sick as a dog. Never allowed to eat a normal meal. Never allowed to enjoy a day without poking myself. You know, Henny, sometimes I wonder why I have to wake up and do it all over again. I really wonder.”
Henny grabbed her jacket from the coat closet and her car keys from the kitchen drawer. A jolt of purpose — or was it caffeine? — rushed through her. “Judy, sit down and relax,” she said. “I’ll be right over and we’ll get you all cheered up before you know it.”
Henny backed out of the driveway and found Faigy’s number in her speed dial.
“Hi Ma, how’s everything? How’d it go last night with the cleanup?”
“Good, good. What about you? You gave the kids chometz yet?”
“Well some of them are still sleeping, but Chayala’s busy with her Cheerios. Maybe later I’ll take them out for pizza. If I ever finish this laundry.”
“And what about you, Ma?” Careful concern, not too warm but not entirely cold, tinged Faigy’s voice. “How’s it going over there?” Unspoken: How was it without Tatty?
“Good, good, everything’s fine, I’m just really worried about Judy. She sounds so depressed, I thought I’d better go over there and check on her.”
The sympathy evaporated. Faigy was crisper than her crispest self. “Didn’t you just host her for the entire Yom Tov? How sick do you think she could have gotten between last night and this morning?”
“Whatever, Ma, you go take care of Judy. It’s good she has you. I’m going back to my laundry.”
What a coper she was, that Faigy. And so confident, the way she managed an entire department at the travel agency. Definitely her father’s daughter. She had his eyes, too. And his nose, unfortunately, but she carried it well. Now for Rochie. First time making Pesach, she was probably still traumatized.
“Hi Rochele, how’re you doing? How’d it go last night?”
“Oh, Ma! It was amazing! I mean, we stayed up until about two o’clock in the morning figuring out how to pack away all the pots, but we did it. It was great. The only problem is that the kids woke up at about six this morning. I don’t know where they get their energy from, not from me, that’s for sure. How about you? You managed okay?”
“Yeah, I’m good.”
“Avrumi! Stop that now! Gotta go, Ma, speak to you later.”
Why had she saved Mindy for last?
“Hi, Mindy, how’s it going? How were the last days? And the cleanup?”
“Hi, Ma.” Mindy was as closed as the Pesach walnuts. “Everything was good. And you?”
“Very nice,” Henny lied. The silence pressed at her throat. Talk, talk, say something cheerful and positive. “Yehuda and Rochel Leah were great guests, the kids are delicious. And Christina came this morning, she’ll put the last boxes away and finish up the laundry. And I’m on my way to Judy, seems like she really needs me—”
“Ah.” Mindy’s voice was frigid. “Okay then, so I guess you’d better go, if Judy needs you. Take care.”
What was it about Mindy that made Henny feel attacked? Yitzchok had made her feel small, stupid, worthless. But Mindy’s accusatory vibes cast her as evil.
Henny scanned the block for a parking space. Judy was waiting. There, between that minivan and the Corolla.
“Henny, how’s everything?” Chana Weissman, Judy’s landlord, was walking briskly down the block.
“Good, good, and you?”
“Baruch Hashem, just going out to stock up on chometz. You’re here to check on Judy? You’re amazing. I hope your kids realize what a tzadeikes their mother is.”
I hope your kids realize, the words echoed with her footfalls as she trekked through the driveway to the basement entrance. “My kids hate me!” she wanted to scream back to Chana. “They don’t even want to spend Yom Tov with me! One of them barely talks to me!”
But she didn’t. Because she had a funny feeling that the very same thing that made her a tzadeikes was keeping her kids from her Yom Tov table.
I messed up big time. I failed my kids. By now they’ve figured out how to manage on their own, but back then when they needed me, I wasn’t there. I was there for Judy, for Mr. Spielsinger, for Bikur Cholim, and the PTA. Anything to escape Yitzchok and the house. Now he’s gone and it’s payback time, and my kids aren’t there for me.
The door opened and a heavyset woman with cropped hair pulled Henny inside. “Henny, Henny, you can’t imagine what I’m dealing with,” she said. “You should count your blessings, you know? A family, a healthy body, a savings account like you have.”
Wow did I mess up.
“I’m telling you, I sometimes wonder if people have the faintest idea how miserable my life is.”
I’m going to be one of those lonely old ladies, without anyone there for me.
“Even a cup of coffee with some sugar I can’t have. Henny, do you ever think how lucky you are?”
he flames flailed valiantly in their pools of wax. Leah’la had found herself a bed on the couch and Miriam was burrowed in the armchair, nose deep inside a book. Shimmy and Ezriel were the only children still at the Shabbos table, unless you counted Chayala, asleep on Yossi’s shoulder.
Henny wasn’t used to having Faigy and her chevreh. Faigy was so independent, she didn’t really need Shabbos invitations. Besides, as she’d explained in the past, her kids and their big mouths wouldn’t get along with all those nebachs around the table. Henny had believed her — or chosen to believe her. Judy and Mr. Spielsinger really did need the hospitality more than Faigy and Yossi and their kids. But this week she’d resolved to try. And Faigy cautiously, if a bit suspiciously, had accepted the opportunity to take a little break after making Pesach.
“I’m pretty sure there’s more to that Ramban,” Faigy was saying. “It’s been a long time since high school, but I learned this parshah really well and I still remember pieces of it. Here Shimmy, bring me a Chumash. I want to look it up inside.”
Henny sat transfixed, and slightly repelled, by the pair of hazel eyes and the prominent nose scanning a sefer against the backdrop of the walnut buffet. She could almost see a “Do Not Enter” sign. It had hung there since the time she’d piped up during Yitzchok’s devar Torah, back when they’d had their first guests as newlyweds. Yitzchok was thrilled to host Usher Freier, rising star, future mashpia, already a “name” in the neighborhood. In honor of the guest, Yitzchok had prepared an elaborate, multitiered devar Torah on the parshah.
“That’s so fascinating, the Rambam says the same idea in parshas Shemos, by the sneh!” Henny had piped up.
“Rambam? On parshas Shemos?” At first Yitzchok was confused.
“Yes, we learned it in 12th grade. I still remember it, it was so powerful.”
“Rambam? In Chumash?” Yitzchok’s eyes narrowed as he cocked his face sideways. Henny didn’t discern, back then, the danger signs. Later she would be smarter.
“These seminary graduates!” He leaned in toward Usher and rubbed his thumb in calculated circles over the rest of his fingers. “They think they know everything just because they learned a parshah or two. Henny,” now he looked directly at her flushed face. “Did they ever teach you girls, over there in your deep and moving Chumash class, the difference between Rambam and Ramban? Maybe you never heard, but they’re two different people. Chazal takke knew what they were doing when they said women aren’t supposed to be learning, heh? As the Rambam says…”
Usher looked into his plate, away from Yitzchok’s triumphant smile. His wife Estie pulled a strand of sheitel hair behind her ear.
And Henny focused on the first image that came to mind: her gentle father finding the place for Mommy in the siddur, so she could daven the proper Shemoneh Esreh on Shabbos Rosh Chodesh. Daddy, what kind of man did you marry me off to? she screamed soundlessly.
“A brilliant young man, already with a good business but still in love with his seforim,” she’d heard him exulting before the vort. “Hennela, make sure you let him learn, not everyone is so lucky these days, to find a man who can support her and still spend hours with his seforim.”
Averting Estie’s gaze, she resolved never to show her stupidity again. Ramban, Rambam, her mouth would stay shut.
“Mommy,” Faigy was saying, “what do you think?”
Henny stared. It was 35 years later and Yitzchok couldn’t hurt her anymore, but still the rules were the rules. Do Not Enter.
“Isn’t it amazing, how the Ramban fits in with what Shimmy was saying?” Faigy’s index finger drew circles around the text. Then, noticing the bleary eyes around her, she patted Ezriel’s shoulders and reached for the bentshers. “Come boys, let’s bentsh, I brought Othello to Babby’s house and I want to play with you tomorrow after the meal. You’ll need a good schluff if you want to beat me.”
Henny started clearing off the table, stealing tiny stares at this daughter of hers with the angular face and soft hands. She wasn’t another Yitzchok. Her spice was offset by sweetness, the cynicism by a generous candor. She had his keen brains, but there was something open and welcoming in this daughter of hers. The daughter she’d been scared to get to know.
“Some tea, Faigele?” she offered.
very morning she called Judy to find out how the night went. So how come this morning she was dialing Rochie?
“Hi Ma!” Rochie was just as surprised.
“Hi Rochele, how’s everything over there?”
“We’re good, Ma. Anything wrong?”
“No, everything’s fine. I was just wondering…” Henny swallowed. “I was just wondering if maybe you’d want me to watch the kids tonight so you and Dovi could go out for supper. Belated anniversary present.”
“Oh Ma! For real? That would be so amazing! I need to check with Dovi, I’ll let you know. But wait, Ma, are you sure you can do it? The supper, and the baths, and you know Dini needs her special story and Avrumi keeps climbing out his crib, and it takes a lot of patience sometimes, you know? And I really like them to—” Rochie went silent.
“You really like them to what?”
“Umm, well, it’s… I have this thing, that kids can feel it when their mother just wants to dump them in bed and get on with her real life. So with my kids, I want them to go to sleep knowing that they’re the only thing in the world that’s important to me. You know what I mean? Like, there’s nothing else waiting, that I don’t have to run anywhere, like to a tea, or a function, or…”
Henny understood. Sweet Rochie, nonjudgmental Rochie with the soft brown eyes and dimples, had tried her mother and found her guilty.
“I hear you. Let’s give it a try, okay Rochie?”
“Yeah Ma.” Rochie must have realized she’d said too much. “Thanks again, I’ll let you know what Dovi says.”
Henny finished the dishes and gave the counters a good wipe. “There, Judy,” she addressed the lump on the couch, “you see, your kitchen is sparkling. A place where a woman would want to work. Do you have everything you need for supper?”
Judy didn’t move. Henny sighed, and settled herself into a kitchen chair. You had to be patient with her, nebach. Sometimes Judy felt so ill that Henny had to prepare the meal. But today it seemed more of a mood thing. A mazel that there was always something to read in Judy’s house. The woman may not know how to take care of her hair or her wardrobe, but she sure kept the local librarian busy. Henny sifted through the pile of books and publications on the table. A greenish-blue photo on the back page of one of the magazines teased her. Take another look.
It was a kosher vacation retreat in Vermont. Back when Yitzchok was around, she’d been terrified he’d be tempted by those ads. In a hotel, with no work to keep him busy, he’d be free to torment her nonstop, with a big audience to lap up his witticisms. But now she could allow herself to read the text: Speaker in residence. Separate swimming. Full-service spa. Hikes and day trips.
Maybe she could convince the girls to join her for three days? They would sit at the pool together, and shmooze, and laugh, like all those mothers and daughters she read about. The ones bound by love and trust and shared confidences.
She pulled the navy leather planner out of her pocketbook and copied down the information. Then she faced the couch again.
“Come Judy, show me what you want for supper, I’ll help you.”
retreat? You mean, like a vacation? Just for us ladies?” Faigy sounded suspicious.
“If you want to bring Chayala I guess you could.” Henny picked her way unsteadily through the invisible minefield of hurt and betrayal. “I’m sure there’ll be some kids there. But the idea was really just us. I thought it would be nice for us —you know, me and the girls — to spend some time…”
“Hmm.” She could almost see Faigy — head cocked, eyes narrowed — formulating a cynical rejoinder. But the response was soft. “That’s really nice of you, Ma. Let me think about it, see if I can take off from work and check if Yossi would be okay with the kids.”
Rochie was easier. “Omigosh that would be amazing! I mean, I need to check with Dovi, and see if the babysitter can work a little extra, but wow, I really could use a break! You can’t imagine how tired I am from running after Avrumi… this sounds amazing, Ma. I’ll let you know what Dovi says.”
Rochel Leah was sweet and polite as always. What a nice idea, she really appreciated it so much, but it didn’t sound like it would work out so well with Yehuda’s night seder. But thanks for thinking of her. Maybe next time. Henny made soothing noises but couldn’t hide her relief. This wasn’t really meant for daughters-in-law.
Then there was Mindy. Frosty Mindy, recrimination encased in her every icy word. “That’s very nice of you Ma, but do you really think I would abandon my kids while I relax in some hotel in Vermont?”
“Of course the kids come first,” Henny said, remembering the thousands of times that her own kids hadn’t come first. “But I thought you deserve a little break. You work so hard, Mindy, between the kids and the office… I think this would be good for you.”
“What’s good for me is to make sure my kids have their mother giving them supper and putting them to bed.”
“You think it would be so terrible if Yechiel does it for two nights?”
“I think that… I think that mothers need to be home with their kids.”
Henny wondered why her eyes were burning. But all she said was, “Okay, then.”
t eleven o’clock the next morning, after Faigy and Rochie had called back with their yeses, Henny scrolled through her cell phone for Yechiel’s number. In the four years since Mindy’s wedding, she hadn’t gotten to know this son-in-law all that well, but he seemed nice enough.
“Yechiel? Hi, it’s Mommy. You have a minute to talk?”
“Mommy?” A pause. “Just a second, let me find a quiet place. Okay, go ahead.”
“So, I’m not sure if Mindy told you, but yesterday I invited her to come along with me and the other girls to a retreat in Vermont. Just for three days, two nights. I thought she could use a break, she works so hard. No?”
“Sounds nice to me.” Yechiel seemed cautious, not sure where this was going.
“So she tells me that she feels she needs to be home with the kids. Which I understand.” Henny noticed her voice rising, her hands trembling a bit. Why was she getting so emotional about this? “But it’s not like the kids would be staying with strangers. They’d be home with you.”
Henny waited. Yechiel was obviously picking his words carefully. “You know what, let me talk to her, okay?”
“You do that,” she said. “I’m sure you can convince her. Call me back and let me know what she says, okay?”
Henny pressed the off button, wondering why she felt so desperate. Mindy had to come.
m not sure why,” he said again.
“She didn’t say anything? She didn’t explain?” Henny knew that Yechiel could sense her fragility. But she couldn’t help it.
“She… she said she feels the kids need her.”
Henny realized there was more, and that it would hurt her. Yechiel wasn’t being evasive for nothing. She pressed on anyway. “And?”
“And she got all upset, I can’t say I really understood everything she was talking about… she was saying something about the camp bus stop, I think? How when it was time to go to sleepaway camp, you took her with her suitcases to the bus stop, and then Judy called and you ran away, and you left her at the bus stop without anyone to say goodbye to her? And then she started talking about Purim, how every year she had to figure out her costume and her shalach manos by herself because you were doing the Purim baskets for Bikur Cholim. And then she said,” his voice was low, apologetic, “she said how all of sudden you wake up and decide to be involved in her life, and still you get it all wrong. She doesn’t need a retreat or even like retreats and she’d much rather be home with her kids, giving them supper and baths and telling them stories like good mothers do. Listen…” He knew that he was hurting her. “I don’t think this is going to happen. It’s just not.”
“But she has to come!” Henny screamed. “It wasn’t the way she told you, she doesn’t understand. I had to be there for Judy. She doesn’t have anyone! She doesn’t even have normal health insurance!”
“I hear,” Yechiel said. But he couldn’t hear all the things she wouldn’t say, about Yitzchok’s temper, Yitzchok’s snide comments, Yitzchok’s withering looks that made her feel like a cockroach in her own home. He couldn’t fathom why she had to escape, why she never wanted to be in that house a minute longer than she had to.
“Tell Mindy.” Henny was begging now. “Tell her that I was thinking about all those things and I realize that… forget it, you know what, she’s right. She should be a good Mommy to her kids. Just tell her that I’ll miss her and I really would have loved to spend the time with her. Even if… even if it didn’t always work out when she was little.”
“Okay, I’ll do that. But you should know that, um, well — that I really appreciate that you wanted to give Mindy a good time. We’ll keep trying. I’ll try too. Maybe next time we’ll get her to come, okay?”
Maybe he did know. He’d been at their Shabbos table enough times to see how things were.
hich would look right, sheitel or snood? Henny wasn’t a snood type, but what do you wear to the health club at a frum retreat? She stared at her face in the mirror and switched back into the sheitel. With the brown waves surrounding her face, she felt more in control.
Faigy and Rochie had gone ahead; they were excited to try the massages. Two days in, she could already see how good this had been for Rochie — the pampering, the change of pace, the chance to recount her kids’ latest kuntzim. They sounded so cute. A lot cuter than Judy, their neediness a lot less grating.
Faigy was warming up too, albeit it at her own pace and in her own cerebral style. She had spotted an old teacher two tables down and introduced Henny, pulling them all into a hashkafic discussion that devolved into a hysterical exchange of kitchen fiascoes. Henny was looking forward to another one of those conversations. She spotted the two snoods — one navy blue, the other an overgrown garden of pink and purple chenille — and headed over.
“It took a lot of time,” she heard Faigy say. “In the beginning, I was so tough, so hard on Yossi and the boys. Everything had to be perfect. Me most of all, but they suffered too. By the time Miriam came along, I was hurting so much, I decided something had to change. I wanted to be able to enjoy my kids instead of checking them off my to-do list. I wanted to let myself be a little less perfect. Spending time with my in-laws, I started to realize that Mommy and Tatty weren’t… whatever, you know.
“But it was a lot of work. Yossi was great, he really stood by me. But I needed professional help too, to figure it all out. I was relying on my brain so much — I have a good head, that’s more comfortable for me — but parts of my heart were too paralyzed to be a good wife and mother, to feel more and think less.
“It was one of the hardest things I ever accomplished, getting that voice and the fear out of my life and creating this new template for myself as a mother. I knew I wanted to do it differently for my kids, not to be like Tatty and Mommy were, but I didn’t have the tools. You know what I mean?”
The pink snood nodded.
“For me it’s different, but I get you,” Rochie said. “For me it’s really Dovi who builds me up. He’s amazing. But probably the biggest thing was just getting out of there. Away from all the pressure. Every now and then I stop and think how amazing it is that I can do this mothering thing. To figure out how to make the kids happy — tickling them, telling them stories, sitting in the sandbox with them. I never knew how nice it would feel to just be a good mommy and a good wife. I love it.”
“Yeah but you know, those two things go together,” the blue snood leaned in toward the pink. “Having a great husband means you’re calm enough and secure enough to be a good mommy, you realize? I know that I wonder sometimes how Mommy would have been if Tatty would have… You ever think about that? You ever realize what she was dealing with?”
Rochie shrugged. “I guess you’re right, things weren’t so easy over there. But growing up, I just knew what she wasn’t. She wasn’t into us, she wasn’t involved in our lives. She wasn’t there.”
Henny headed out the door she’d just entered, stumbled toward the lobby, and found a striped green couch she could sink into. Fingers shaking, she smoothed her sheitel.
It had been so much more convenient all these years to think of herself as the victim. But maybe she was the villain too. What kind of mother runs away from her kids just because their father is constantly hurting her, because every minute in her house is proof of a withered fantasy? A good mother is strong. She withstands the pain and is there for her children.
Just listen to the way they were talking — such strong, smart, amazing daughters she had. Healthy. Self-aware. Fighting and overcoming, “creating new templates,” as Faigy — or probably her therapist — had put it. Wasn’t that something? Her daughter, the brilliant perfectionist, had been courageous enough to admit she needed help. She was going to do better for her kids — and she did — even though Henny had failed her, hadn’t ever recuperated from her own lost dream.
And Rochie — sweet, trusting Rochele was finding confidence and fulfillment as a good mommy and a good wife. The path to her heart wasn’t so hard to navigate.
Thank Hashem in himmel, Faigy was perceptive enough to understand. Rochie was sweet enough to forgive. They were here with her at the retreat, they’d laugh together at the next meal, they’d come to her for Shabbos and she’d make it up to them. Little by little, she would find her footing and learn what it means to nurture her own.
But Mindy was uncertain, prickly and insecure. She didn’t have the greatness of spirit or the sweet disposition to forget her blotched childhood. Would Henny ever be able to compensate for all those years? She knew only too well that not all stories had a happily ever after. That some mistakes were too big and bad to ever be fixed.
enny, I think I’m dying.”
Henny kept pushing the shopping cart, but slowed her pace. “What’s wrong, Judy?”
“This morning I woke up with a killer headache. I’m telling you, you would never imagine what I’m going through. I’m literally seeing stars, Henny.”
“Did you check your blood sugar?” Henny reached past the French vanilla and Irish crème. She wanted plain old coffee. It must be somewhere here on the shelf.
“Phoo, who cares about things like blood sugar when you’re dying from pain, alone in your apartment without a single friend in the world!”
“Judy, don’t talk like that. You have so many people who care about you.” Henny’s fingers closed on the coffee jar. “And I’m coming over this afternoon, remember? I’m taking you to the library.”
“I don’t know Henny, by the time you get here you’ll probably have to bring the chevra kaddisha with you.”
“Oh, Judy. Wait, I have another call coming in. We’ll speak this afternoon, okay?”
“Yechiel! Is that you?”
“Yeah, sorry to bother you. We, umm, we have a problem. Like, well, we really meant to tell you earlier, but Mindy is in her fifth month. Early this morning she woke up with really strong contractions. As soon as we got the kids out we went straight to the doctor, who sent us to the hospital, and they told us there’s nothing to do and that… basically, she’s going to lose the baby.”
The shopping cart rammed into the shelf. Henny grabbed it.
“So basically, like I said, there’s nothing really to do, just wait it out, I guess. It could take a whole day, maybe less. The issue is, I usually pick up the kids from the babysitter bein hasedorim, and I was wondering if you think you could—”
“Of course I’ll take the kids. At least that I can do. Just tell me exactly where the babysitter is and what I need to know.”
Henny grabbed her planner and scribbled down the details. She abandoned the shopping cart, ran out of the store and drove home as fast as she could. Supper, they would need a filling supper. There were some containers of mushroom-barley soup in the freezer and a pan of shnitzel. And maybe she should buy some nice new toys for the kids? A book might be better. Mindy probably sat on the couch every afternoon reading to her kids and singing them cute little baby songs. She would run into Eichler’s on the way to the babysitter, after she finished making some farfel.
he house was finally quiet. Henny had forgotten how draining it was to entertain, feed, and bathe two little ones. Chanala and Yosef Chaim weren’t used to her either, so that made it even harder. But she’d coaxed Chanala into eating another piece of shnitzel, and gotten Yosef Chaim to lean his head back into the bathwater. In their fresh pajamas, wet hair plastered over their bright eyes, they reminded her of her first two — Faigy and Yehuda — back when she still did supper and bedtime, before her parents’ car crash and before Yitzchok had transitioned from the occasional nasty barb to an all-out terror campaign. After that she’d found a thousand reasons not to be there, to avert the line of fire. Needy people, people in pain, people she could soothe without worrying about the wrong word or the wrong move.
Chanala hung tight to Henny’s arm as she tried to leave the room. With no bedtime stories at the ready, she pulled her mother’s Yiddish lullaby deep from a cobwebbed memory. “Ailu lululu,” she whisper-sang. Chanala closed her eyes.
Over the dishes, she finally allowed herself to think about Mindy. How would Mindy deal with a blow like this? Mindy wasn’t a coper. She was brittle, fragile, so easily hurt. And her kids were everything to her. This loss of a shadow baby would hit her very hard, right at the identity she’d carved for herself as the perfect mother.
A slight knock at the door. It was Yechiel.
“It’s over. She’ll be okay, everything went smoothly.” Then realizing how ironic that sounded, he gave a crooked smile. “Whatever, you know what I mean. They said they’ll keep her overnight. If the doctor’s happy tomorrow, I’ll bring her home around lunchtime.”
“You must be starving.” Henny lit the fire under the soup and set out a fresh plate and silverware.
“Yeah. Maybe.” Yechiel sat down, but pushed the plate aside.
He needs some space, Henny realized. She gathered up her jacket and pocketbook. “I think I’ll go home now. What time do you want me to come in the morning?”
“You know, so you can go to Shacharis.”
“Oh, thank you so much, I appreciate that. I usually daven at a quarter to seven.”
Wow, that was early. “I’ll be here.”
Henny stood at the door, her hand on the knob. “Yechiel, how’s… how’s Mindy taking it?”
He shrugged. “It’s bad. You know that the kids are her life. As soon as she found out about this pregnancy, it was ‘when the baby’s born’ and ‘when the baby comes’… ”
“Would she, I mean, is there anything she needs over there?”
“I think she’s okay, it’s just one night really.”
“I hear. Do you, ah, do you remember the room number? I mean like, just in case I want to bring something over?”
“Yeah, it’s room 507. But you don’t have to bother, she doesn’t really need anything.” He poured a cup of orange juice, then stared at it. “Thanks again, Ma. It was really good you came.”
s she rummaged for her car keys inside her pocketbook, Henny felt the rounded edges of her cell phone. Wow! For an entire afternoon, she’d completely forgotten about it. It had been books and Magna-Tiles and Lego and mentshies.
She sat in the car and checked the phone log. Seven missed calls. Judy. Judy. Judy. Bikur Cholim. Judy. Telemarketer. Judy.
“Hi Judy, I’m so sorry I missed your calls, we had this family emergency I was dealing with.”
“Henny! You’re still here? I thought that was it, that no one’s left to come to my levayah.”
Why was Henny feeling so impatient? Where was her rachmanus? “Sorry Judy, like I told you, I had something important to take care of. Is everything okay with you?”
“If you could call it okay that I almost fainted three times today, and no one in the world would have known the difference if I wouldn’t have gotten up. And someone probably took the library book I was waiting for.”
“Sounds really tough.” Henny backed out of the driveway. “Baruch Hashem you made it through the day. Listen, Judy, maybe we’ll speak tomorrow? Have a great night.”
A book, a book. Maybe Mindy would appreciate a good book. Not about nisyonos or cancer or a Holocaust memoir. Maybe one of those frum thrillers, with a complicated family saga spread across the world. Something to distract her.
Henny parked the car and hurried out. Eichler’s was closed. What next?
Chocolates could work, chocolates were always appropriate. There should be a chocolate shop somewhere around here; she remembered picking up some platters before the last Chinese auction they did for Bikur Cholim.
Who could be calling her now?
“Henny, I know you have this whole big family you’re taking care of, you probably don’t have time to worry about someone without a single relative in the world, but I thought you should know that I still have a terrible headache. Worse than anything I remember. You think I should check it out?”
“Judy,” she breathed in, then out. “How about taking two Tylenols and a nice cold drink? Maybe you’re dehydrated.”
The chocolate shop was closed.
Maybe the linen store? They sold these baskets with color-coordinated bath oils and fingertip towels — that could work. It was on the other side of Flatbush though.
She had just found a parking spot when the phone rang again. The screen said “Judy.”
Hands shaking, Henny finishing parking and slid the keys out of the ignition. The phone kept jangling, accusing. She ran down the block, taking note of a few stores still open. Maybe, maybe this could still work out. Maybe she could still patch things up.
The linen store was closed.
She was too late. Too late to fix things. Too late to make it all nice again.
Henny walked back to the car, seeing nothing except Yechiel’s empty plate and sagging shoulders. Where to now? She should go home, go to sleep, find some strength for tomorrow.
The phone rang again. Habit propelled her finger to the green button.
“Henny, I hope you’re settling in for a good sleep. Me, I don’t know if I’ll make it to the morning. You can’t imagine how much my head hurts. I bet a nice tea and maybe a hot-water bottle would help, but there’s no one in the world who would do that for me.”
Now Henny was angry. Angry at everything — at the stores for closing too early, at the bottomless pit of Judy’s neediness, at the doctors in the hospital who couldn’t save Mindy’s baby. And at herself, for messing everything up.
“Listen, Judy,” she said, with a strength and purpose she did not recognize. “I’d love to help you, but my daughter needs me. We’ll talk tomorrow, okay?”
She closed the phone and started the car. The firmness of her resolve echoed through the small space. My daughter needs me. Me — Henny — not the chocolates or the soaps.
She knew what it meant to lose a dream, that was something she could give her daughter.
Henny switched on the headlights, swung onto the avenue, and headed toward the hospital.
(Originally featured in Calligraphy, Succos 5776)
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